It's safe to call Molly's La Casita an institution; 2012 marks the restaurant's 30th year in its Madison Avenue location, where it moved when the late Robert Chapman purchased it from Molly Gonzales.
Such institutions see good days and days that aren't as bright, and this is a good time for Molly's.
First, it's clearly spiffed up. It's always been a welcoming place, but now it's brighter, cleaner and even a bit festive with lights strung all around. The servers are friendly and helpful, and the food is better than I remember.
OK, that part about the food is only partially true, as I recall that Mr. Bruce's Nachos and the frijoles were always as good.
We ended up there on a recent Sunday night and were surprised both that the food was as good as it was, and that it had been so long since we'd eaten there. There was a time when we were regulars, on Madison and at the now-closed East Memphis location -- but another surprise was remembering what it was like to eat the same thing at the same place time and time again (not something dining reviewers have the luxury of doing).
At Molly's, it was always Mr. Bruce's Nachos for me. I love the big mountain of crunchy chips, covered in the questionable but very tasty cheese sauce and chili, then loaded up with crisp lettuce, tomatoes and peppers, and topped off with sour cream and guacamole. Just as some people crave sweets, there are those of us who crave crunchy, salty foods. Chips fit the bill, and ladened with all the savory extras, good nachos are the perfect way for us to satisfy the urge.
A few bar versions come close, but Mr. Bruce is still King Nacho in this town.
We went appetizer heavy, choosing the seven-layer dip, guacamole and queso flameado as a shared meal, and the nachos and the Full Monty at another meal. The guacamole is good, a creamy, kind of old-fashioned version; there's nothing chopped and tossed here. We liked the dip (beans, cheeses, sour cream, pico de gallo, guacamole) and the Full Monty, which is a split order of bacon-wrapped shrimp and Mexican hot wings.
Yes, hot wings -- pretty good ones too. They're spicy but not fiery, though I can't say that they were distinctly Mexican. The bacon-wrapped shrimp was very good, and brings up a point. Bacon, you might know, is pretty popular, and the generally thick, top-end bacon is highly desirable. But when it comes to wrapping a shrimp, a date, an olive -- whatever -- I think the thinner, the better. Molly's uses a thin slice, which means there's a crisp layer -- no flabby pieces -- of bacon around the plump shrimp and creamy cheese.
The queso flameado was the only bust of all the dishes. It doesn't sound like much could go wrong with chorizo, pico de gallo and cheese, but add a salamander and you can ruin it. We did think it was funny when the server told us the dish was "chorizo, pico and cheese, put under a salamander."
Yes, we know that a salamander is a broiler, but we couldn't resist a few poor jokes about how it would be better without the salamander. The cheese just wasn't creamy at all, either because it was left under the heat too long or it was a poor choice for melting. The result was a hard casserole when a gooey mess was anticipated.
Chilies rellenos were excellent. Deep, earthy black ancho peppers were stuffed with cheese, lightly battered and fried. Unlike many versions of the dish, the flavor of the peppers really comes through here. You can order them with rice and beans (we'll be back to the beans), or surrounded by a sauce with shrimp. We went the simple route, but will try the shrimp Mexicana version another time.
I'd planned to order the pollo con mole, but the server was very direct. She asked if I'd tried the mole (mo-lay), and told me she didn't like it. She brought a sample, and at first, I didn't, either. But I had it later and had mixed thoughts. Mole can be many kinds of sauces (or dishes), though the one made with unsweetened cocoa and peppers is what most comes to mind. This is what Molly's serves, and, well, here's the deal:
First, if offered a sample in a cup, don't be put off by the gritty texture (probably from the peanut butter). Know that it will be sweet, and that the cocoa flavor is subtle. There's some heat, but not too much. It could use a touch of salt. All in all, I find this version too sweet and intense for chicken, but the grittiness factor is diminished when it's served with chicken and rice.
Like it or not, don't judge all moles by this one. Try a green mole with fresh herbs, or a mole made from pumpkin seeds (neither available here). It's like the difference between chicken soup and chili, which are both served in a bowl and eaten with a spoon, but that's about all they have in common.
Lunch specials are simple and inexpensive; most dishes are around $7. Be sure to get the beans when offered rice or beans (you can have both for just 50 cents). These are hands-down the best beans around. They're rich, spicy and thick, not even slightly creamy or mushy like most refried beans.
We love Mexican food in Memphis, evidenced by so many restaurants. Try them all, but don't forget about Molly's.
-- Jennifer Biggs: (901) 529-5223
Molly's La Casita
Address: 2006 Madison.
Telephone: (901) 726-1873
Hours: Open daily, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Reviewer's choices: Mr. Bruce's Nachos ($7.95); the Full Monty ($12.70); chilies rellenos ($9.95); sizzling chicken fajitas ($11.95).
Alcohol: Full bar.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
Very Good: Two stars
Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars